Opening Words: The Summer Day, Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Sermon: “The Force of Character”
When he was in his mid-90’s Stanley Kunitz wrote a poem he called The Layers.
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
It’s a powerful piece of poetry, especially for those of us over a certain age — when the ‘dust of friends who fell along the way bitterly stings the face.’
We find ourselves more resistant to change – we overreact with even the little changes in the daily routine; the internet goes down and we find ourselves at a loss, more frustrated than such a passing incident calls for. The routine is broken, and routine is first cousin to ritual, which is our day-to-day practice, perhaps our ‘real religion.’
The dust of friends who fell stings the face, then the poet’s voice comes and says, ‘live in the layers, not on the litter.’ We know that we can’t allow ourselves to be swallowed up in our losses – we need to be in the present moment, to live in the layers – which is the essence of what we call ‘spirituality.’ We have to be present to the moment, in spite of the huge pile of losses, the names and faces of those ‘who fell along the way,’ never to be forgotten.
We look for the strength to carry on. No, not just to ‘carry on,’ but to be energetically engaged in layer after layer; to be enthusiastically involved in this layer, facing the challenges it brings, fortunate to realize that living with challenges is better than the alternative…of not living, or of not being challenged.
In other words, we rely on ‘the force of character.’ And in spite of all the changes, we are who we are, we’re still in process — in the active process of becoming. We’ve been at it for a lifetime, living through what seem like ‘other lives.’ “I have walked through many lives, some of them my own.” We hold fast to ‘some principle of being’ that abides even as we change, even as we continue to emerge as an active, ongoing self. The principle of being is the self we were at birth; the self that stayed with us through all the years, all the changes, all the mistakes, all the accomplishments, all the losses.
Paul Simon sang it: “still crazy after all these years.”
None of us is who we once were, but we know that ‘some principle of being abides, from which we must struggle not to stray.’
My friend and colleague in ministry, Bruce Southworth, says that ‘life is the opportunity to grow a soul.’ The word soul seems synonymous here with the word character—the unique set of features that distinguish us, that taken together make us who we are, and determine how we will be remembered.
The word ‘character’ is used in several ways: it’s one of the actors in a play, film or novel.
Character is one’s moral or ethical strength – I’m often asked to provide a character reference for someone applying for a job or volunteer work. One of our most important goals in our religious education program is character development, in the sense of helping our children to develop a common set of ethical values such as respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, and citizenship.
We also want to encourage our children to be real; to be genuine; to be themselves – not necessarily fitting into the mold.
The word character also refers to a notable or well-known person, often one who is eccentric; we say that someone is ‘a real character,’ or ‘quite a character’ meaning that he or she has an unusual set of characteristics that everyone can easily see. We admire the strength and integrity it takes to be oneself in a world determined to have us think alike, believe alike, dress alike, eat alike.
The word character, in the most general sense, is simply a description of a person’s traits, abilities and strengths; most especially it’s about a person’s inner strength…integrity.
We often hear talk of things that ‘build character.’ Usually they are things one would just as soon go without – illnesses, accidents, job losses, divorces, caring for a disabled parent, a stint in the Marine Corps, being falsely accused, and so forth.
The old saying is that ‘what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.’
One highly objectionable suggestion to someone in the midst of a particularly difficult time is that ‘God wouldn’t give you something you can’t handle.’ Thanks a lot!
The word character has its roots in the Greek verb, kharassein, ‘to engrave, sketch, or inscribe.’ In Greek, the word kharakter, means one who makes sharp incisive marks and the marks that are made, such as letters in a writing system.
One’s character, then, is a distinctive set of qualities that together make a person a distinctive ‘individual.’
I took the title of the sermon, The Force of Character, from a wonderful book about aging by James Hillman. He refers to character as “…that specific composition of traits, foibles, delights and commitments…that identifiable figure bearing our name, our history, and a face that mirrors a ‘me.’”
Putting a positive spin on aging, Hillman suggests that the older years provide opportunity to bring the life-long development of character to its ultimate or highest fruition; or, as Bruce Southworth would say, ‘to continue to grow a soul.’
Hillman’s book is an attempt to affirm and to make sense out of the older years, not only to put a positive spin on the later or last chapter of life, but to counteract the negative way that aging is portrayed in our culture, to give the process of aging a sense of purpose and deeper meaning.
Of course he doesn’t deny the difficulties – to deny the vicissitudes, struggles and losses of aging would be to lose all credibility real fast. Hillman acknowledges that aging comes with a lot of losses – and that’s precisely the point. But he articulates and affirms things that are gained in the aging process.
He says, “The last years confirm and fulfill character.”
“We want to make sense out of our aging beyond wearing down and running out.”
“What ages is not merely your functions and organs, but the whole of your nature, that particular person you have come to be and already were years ago. Character has been forming your face, your habits, your friendships, your peculiarities, the level of your ambition with its career and its faults. Character influences the way you give and receive; it affects your loves and your children. It walks you home at night and can keep you long awake.”
He says, “I…am trying to get rid of (the) notion that we are basically physiological creatures and that therefore our thinking about ourselves can be reduced to thinking about our bodies. This notion dooms us; we become victims of aging. We believe our entire existence is yoked to and—most dramatically in later years—governed by physiology.”
I’m reminded of a story that’s told about Abraham Lincoln. After an interview with a visitor to the White House Lincoln said to his secretary, “I don’t like that man’s face.”
She protested, “But Mr. President, he’s not responsible for his face.”
Lincoln responds, “After 40 every man is responsible for his face!”
In Shakespeare’s Richard III Lord Hastings says about a friend, “I think there’s never a man in Christendom/That can less hide his love or hate than he; /For by his face straight shall you know his heart.”
Hillman says, “As character directs aging, aging reveals character…age is not excluded from revelation.”
In other words, we don’t stop learning, including that from which most of our important learning is derives – experience, including the experience of being an older person.
The deeper meanings of life are revealed in the older years. Hillman talks about the value of writing the story of your own life, but he says no one should try to do that until at least age 60.
This is essentially what we do in the Building Your Own Theology class — we review the life we’ve lived so far. This kind of review is, I think, a built-in part of the process of growing, of maturing – at any age. We do it automatically. In the older years we become more conscious of the process of reviewing.
He recounts a story of a son in conversation with an elderly father; the old man is re-telling a story he’s told over and over and the frustrated son says, “I know, you’ve told me that story many times.” The old man responds, “I know I’ve told it many times, but I enjoy telling it, so indulge me once again!”
Perry told me the story that’s going around about an elderly Jewish man in Miami who calls his son in New York and says, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing. Fifty-five years of misery is enough.”
“Pop, what are you talking about?” the son screams.
“We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” the old man says. “We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her,” and he hangs up.
Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone, “Like heck they’re getting divorced,” she shouts, “I’ll take care of this.” She calls her father immediately and screams at the old man, “You are NOT getting divorced! Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back!, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?” and hangs up.
The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife. “Okay,” he says, “They’re coming for Passover and paying their own airfares.”
Hillman reminds us how helplessly trapped we are in thinking about the last of life in disparaging ageism. He says, “Yes, old age is affliction—especially, it is afflicted with the idea of affliction. As long as we regard each tremor, each little liver spot, each forgotten name as only a sign of decay, we are afflicting older age with our minds as much as our minds are afflicted by older age.”
He reminds us that ‘the mind likes new ideas, so it asks for fresh ones, even half-baked ones…the mind is naturally curious, inventive.”
Approaching his 80th birthday, Hillman writes, “Our ideas of older age need replacement. Like a hip that can no longer bear weight or a clouded lens that does not let you see out of your own head, we need to wheel our ideas into the operating room.” He adds, “But replacing outworn mental habits requires both attack and stamina.”
Hillman quotes an intriguing passage by the Spanish writer, philosopher, poet and playwright Miguel de Unamuno (1864 – 1936) who says, “Our greatest endeavor must be to make ourselves irreplaceable; no one else can fill the gap that will be left when we die.
“For in fact each (of us) is unique and irreplaceable; there cannot be any other I; each one of us—our soul, that is, not our life—is worth the whole Universe…and to act in such a way as to make our annihilation an injustice, in such a way as to make our brothers, (and sisters) our sons, (and daughters) and our brothers’ (and sisters’) sons, (and daughters) and their son’s (and daughter’s) sons, (and daughters) feel that we ought not to have died, is something within the reach of all.
“All of us, each one of us, can and ought to give as much of (ourselves) as we possibly can—nay, to give more than we can, to exceed (ourselves) to go beyond (ourselves) to make (ourselves) irreplaceable.”
There’s an important distinction, I think, between being irreplaceable and indispensable.
One of the tasks of a long-term ministry — or longevity in any leadership capacity — is to minimize, as much as possible, the impact on the church (or company, or family) of one’s leaving, either by death, retirement or other, less attractive ways we might leave.
It’s reassuring to accept the idea that it’s okay to think of oneself as irreplaceable; to live in such a way that my departure will leave a hole that can’t be filled, that won’t be filled, simply by virtue of being my unique, one and only self. There can’t be another, and there won’t be another. And that’s the way it should be for each of us.
Certainly this pulpit and my office can and will be filled by another who will, hopefully, become irreplaceable, but none of us is indispensable.
I’m glad to have that reassuring suggestion from Miguel de Unamuno – the encouragement to continue to be a ‘force of character’ that no one else can fill, to leave a ‘gap that will be left when I die,’ or when I leave.
T.S.Eliot wrote that ‘Old men ought to be explorers.’ We need the courage to be curious, to face the possibility of changing our minds about some important beliefs or ideas.
So much of the human adventure takes place in the mind. The great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called for the ‘adventure of ideas.’ “A thought,” he said, “is a tremendous mode of excitement.”
Hillman talks about the process of writing our own story, and refers to it as, “Writing as burden; writing as adventure; writing as disclosure.” We reveal more character as we age.
Older faces are marked by character; their beauty reveals the force of character, of staying power, as images of wisdom, authority, tragedy, courage, and depth of soul is. It’s all about the force of character. Hillman says, “The absence of these qualities in contemporary society and in its public figures…is due to the falsification of the older face on public view.”
I’m reminded here of the story of the 55 year old woman who had a near-death experience and heard the voice of God telling her that she would live another 40 years. She decided to have a face-lift, and some liposuction and even got a nice tan to top things off. She walked out of the clinic and was hit and killed by a bus, and when she walked through the pearly gates she confronted God and reminded him that he had told her she had another forty years to live and demanded an explanation. God apologized and said, “But I just didn’t recognize you!”
Neither our bodies nor our minds stay the same; they cannot avoid change. But as the poet says, “…some principle of being abides.” Something about us holds true all along, through all the stages of life – some special component that marks you as a being different from all others. It’s about your individual character. That same you.
“The idea of character is necessary to keep us different from one another, and the same as ourselves…we need a long old age to ravel out the snarls and set things straight.”
“I like to imagine a person’s psyche to be like a boardinghouse full of characters. The ones who show up regularly and who habitually follow the house rules may not have met other long-term residents who stay behind closed doors, or who only appear at night.”
Using his early Jungian language he says that what’s required is the “integration of the shadow personalities.”
He interviewed a woman of one hundred and three, living in Nevada who described her desire: ‘I want to start a wedding chapel…I would just sit in a nice chair and let…whoever I hire do the strenuous work. The reason I’d like a wedding chapel is that I could study the people. I could see what kind of man she’s going to marry, and what kind of woman or girl she is. I can tell, I can tell.”
When I read Hillman’s assertion that, “Blessing is the one gift we want from the old, and the one great gift only they can bestow,” I was reminded of an incident that took place some years ago while visiting friends in the mountains of Puerto Rico. Six of us went on a late-night fishing trip, walking down a steep path to a small stream where we would dive into the water and push shrimp from rocks while one of the men held a big hoop net where the water flowed from the little pond back into the stream, catching the shrimp.
On our way to the water, as we walked together, one of the men asked us to wait as he went into his grandfather’s house to ‘get the blessing.’ We waited, but I didn’t understand what was happening, so one of my companions explained what he was doing…that he would never pass his grandfather’s house without stopping to ‘get the blessing.’
“Blesssing is the one gift we want from the old, and the one great gift they can bestow.”
Hillman writes. “Aging is no accident. It is necessary to the human condition, intended by the soul.” We become more characteristic of who we are simply by lasting into later years; the older we become, the more our true natures emerge. Thus the final years have a very important purpose: the fulfillment and confirmation of one’s character.
One of the most well-known stories in our culture is the tragic tale of Job who lost so much and who suffered so deeply, in every way – physically, emotionally and spiritually. The closing line in that great human story says, “And Job died, an old man, and full of days.” We are filled by the day-to-day process of living a life, from birth to death. If we’re fortunate, we live to be old and we die ‘full of days.’
“I have walked through many lives,/Some of them my own,/And I am not who I was,/Though some principle of being abides…/I am not done with my changes.” Stanley Kunitz
Closing Words, by Miller Williams.
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”